Lectionary Commentaries for April 11, 2010
Second Sunday of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 20:19-31

Frank L. Crouch

The season of Easter is above all a season of life: resurrection life, eternal life, or, as the end of this passage says, just plain “life”–“that through believing you may have life in his name” (verse 31).

Of course, the “life” spoken of here is not actually “just plain” life, but is a distinctive kind of life, a distinction that is obscured in English but apparent in Greek. In John, and throughout the New Testament, the English word “life” translates three different Greek words: psyche, bios, and zoe. When John (and the rest of the New Testament) speaks, on the one hand, of psyche or bios, these words refer to what one possesses simply by virtue of being a living creature. This is the life possessed from birth to death by animals and by humans, whether they be good or bad, righteous or wicked, founders of charities or perpetrators of genocide. 

On the other hand, “life” as used at the end of this passage, is spoken of with the word zoe. This is eternal life (literally “life of the age”), life given to those who believe; life given to those who are born of God; life that, in John, transforms us from merely existing to living in the abundance and eternity of God.  This life was present from the beginning and lies at the core of creation (“in him was life (zoe), and the life (zoe) was the light of all people” (1:4)). This life connects the deepest purposes of God with the ultimate purpose of John’s gospel: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah … and that believing you may have life (zoe) in his name.” This zoe does not replace psyche; we are still the same creatures we were before.  It does, however, bring us into the fullness of grace; so that we are, also, not still, the same creatures we were before–at least potentially not the same.

In this passage, we find the disciples demonstrating more psyche than zoe, hunkered down behind locked doors, fearful of what might happen to them at the hands of those who killed Jesus (verse 19). The risen Christ steps into the room, into the midst of their fears with the first of a three-fold “Peace be with you.” This is the peace that comes when our worst fears are not realized; the relief that against all odds, death has not won; the profound realization that out of the blood, the nails, the thorns, the beating, and the cross has come this life, this zoe of God, right into their midst.

When Christ shows them his hands and side, they rejoice with the euphoria, the adrenaline rush that follows the miraculous–the crucified one is the risen one (verse 20). Jesus then speaks a second “Peace be with you” (verse 21), maybe this time a “not so fast” kind of peace, a kind of peace that lasts beyond the initial rush, that abides even when one remembers the cost and the challenges that still lie ahead.  “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Sobering words, even when they see the living Christ, since they have also just been shown his wounds. Christ’s victory will be theirs as well, but in order to get there, they will need the kind of peace that abides even when–in the midst of their own blood, thorns, and cross–victory seems a dim and distant possibility.

The third “Peace be with you” follows a famous interlude with the disciples and Thomas, who was absent during the previous appearance (verses 24-25). As many have noted, although he is famous as “Doubting” Thomas, he asks for no more than what the rest of them, including Mary Magdalene, have already received. As we will see, Thomas’ words do not seem particularly troubling to Jesus, but one might imagine the existence of significant tension between Thomas and the other disciples in the room. After all, Thomas has in so many words called them liars to their face. “I won’t believe you until I see for myself.” However, despite what might have transpired during the rather awkward week that followed the first appearance (verse 26a), they are still together.

Jesus again appears among them, and before anyone says anything, says again, “Peace be with you,” perhaps this time the peace of reconciliation–“peace be among you,” the peace that follows when one forgives (a task given to the disciples at Jesus’ previous appearance, verses. 22-23). This is the gospel that most emphasizes oneness and unity among the disciples (17:11-23), a oneness that shows the world that this message of life is true (17:21,23). So, this third peace, within the community, might be the most significant of all.

At any rate, Jesus does not admonish Thomas and, in fact, invites him to satisfy his doubt by seeing for himself (verses 27).  Even if he were to be considered a doubter (as the traditional interpretation understands him), he is welcomed into the peace of Christ before he can either apologize or defend himself. Congregations and communities of faith often do not do well with dissidents and direct challenges in their midst. Christ calls them and us to live into his peace as a way of reaching our own peace with each other. (See also Matthew. 28:16-17, where even those who doubted when Jesus appeared to them on the Galilean mountain were sent to fulfill the great commission.) Christ seems less concerned than we often are about adherence to one interpretation of his life and resurrection. He sends Thomas, doubters, and all of us to continue his work.

Thomas’ response stands as the highest affirmation of Christ by any person in the gospel, “My Lord and my God!” (verse 28). What the narrator proclaimed in the prologue (“and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (1:1)), this non-doubting Thomas speaks from his own lips. His words exceed even the stated purpose of the gospel, which the narrator provides immediately following, that these things are written to lead us to believe “merely” that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. Whether we have the faith of Thomas or the faith described at the end of this passage, the goal is that we find our life, our zoe, within the life of the crucified and risen Christ, who sends us out as his Father also sent him.

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 5:27-32

James Boyce

Luke-Acts in the Season of Easter

Christ is Risen! He is risen, indeed! The lessons from Acts for the Sundays of Easter provide the preacher with a great opportunity to reflect with Luke on the present and living power of the resurrected Lord for new life in community. It will be helpful to keep at the ready the themes that inspire these Acts texts with the particular imaginative stamp of Luke’s grand two-volume conception of the story of Jesus.

Luke opens his gospel by describing its first characters, Zechariah and Elizabeth, as “righteous” (Luke 1:6). When at the end of the gospel at the foot of the cross the centurion praises God and announces that this man was indeed “righteous” (24:47), the story of Jesus has come full circle. Throughout Luke’s gospel, righteousness (or justice) is constantly re-imagined in terms of the necessary “today” of God’s salvation, announced by the angels to the shepherds, “To you has been born today a Savior who is Christ the Lord” (2:11). “The scriptures had to be fulfilled” the resurrected Jesus announces to his disciples (24:44), and then commissions them as witnesses to this salvation–constituted in the message of repentance and forgiveness–which now is to be proclaimed to all nations under the authorizing promise and power of God’s Spirit (24:47-49).

These central themes, even if not always explicit, continue to energize each episode of the narrative of Acts. They are:

1. The presence and power of God’s Spirit (“You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” 1:8).
2. The commissioning for witness and mission (“you will be my witnesses…” 1:8).
3. The Message: God raised Jesus from the dead (“it was impossible for him to be held by its power…” 2:24).
4. A promise that is for all peoples (“for everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” 2:39).
5. A promise that shapes a new community (“All who believed were together and had all things in common.” 2:44).

“God raised Jesus from the dead” echoes in the numerous speeches in Acts. Resurrection life is here and now. Faith is seeking to born. “Why are you standing here looking up into heaven?” the heavenly messengers ask the disciples (2:11), as if to say, “Get busy.” The angel’s promise to Mary was that with God every word of promise is possible (Luke 1:37). Acts will teach us along with this early disciple community that in the midst of the “today” of the resurrection promise, each hearer needs to be ready for the surprising ways of God’s salvation as the Spirit shapes new identities and configurations of God’s people.

In the Name of Jesus

This Lukan horizon of the story of salvation also informs the lesson for the second Sunday of Easter. In its closer context Acts 5:27-32 is part of the larger narrative of the initial missionary adventures of Peter and John in Jerusalem after Jesus’ ascension (chapters 3 through 5). This narrative is bracketed literarily by two key summary descriptions of the new community–devoted to apostolic teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer (2:42-47), and constantly in the temple and at home teaching and proclaiming that Jesus was the Messiah (5:42).

Although Peter and John’s acts of healing and powerful preaching in the region of the temple result in their arrest (3:1-26), they are soon released by the power of the Spirit who inspires their bold witness (4:1-31). God’s grace is in the community’s common caring for those in need, although the reality of sin and greed still stalks them (4:32-5:11). Arrested again because of the “signs and wonders” they are doing, Peter and John are freed by an angel in the night. Yet they insist on preaching and teaching, and as our lesson begins, now for a third time they are restrained and stand on trial before the religious authorities (5:12-26).

In this courtroom competing powers are being tested. The recognized powers of this world, of tradition and the religious authorities, are pitted against the witness of these apparently “ordinary and uneducated men” (4:13). They have ignored the “strict orders” of their parole and have threatened the leaders with the implications of their preaching (“bringing this man’s blood on us” 5:28).

Readers are thus teased and drawn into this story by an ironic contrast of power and authority that is only apparent and artificial. The leaders have unwittingly called attention to the reality and have signaled their doom when they refer to the apostles’ teaching “in the name” (5:28). It is the name after all that identifies and makes present this witness to the risen Lord Jesus. “There is salvation in on one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (4:12).

This name carries a power and authority that “must” be obeyed. It is the necessity of God’s promise of salvation. The apostolic testimony pushes directly to the heart of the gospel. Jesus was put to death by hanging on a cross. But God raised him up and exalted him to a position of power and authority. Death and resurrection. There you have it.

The Gift of Repentance and Forgiveness

There is more. There are implications of this action. Just as the risen Lord gave instructions to his disciples on Easter that “in his name” repentance and forgiveness are to be preached to all nations (Luke 24:47), so now these disciples fulfill their commission by announcing God’s purpose to give repentance and forgiveness to Israel by making this Jesus both “leader” and “savior.”

Here, care must be taken not to imagine or imply that God’s grace comes in response to repentance. Repentance and forgiveness are a package deal, the gift of God bestowed on us “in the name” and by the power of the risen Lord. Repentance is that “turning around,” that new life that belongs to the promise, and “forgiveness” the new being, the operating principle, of that new community authorized in this gift.

Finally comes the courtroom summation, outlandish bravado were it not so true. We are witnesses, they say, and then add “and so is the Holy Spirit” (5:32). By the gift and power of the resurrection, our simple experience and witness are joined to the very power of God’s Spirit.

In these few verses are the whole of the apostolic witness packed in a nutshell. This lesson provides an occasion to hear and announce that Easter message once again, now coupled with the bold witness and confident life in community that it evidently inspires. We, too, join these apostolic witnesses in the sure and certain truth that God has raised Jesus from the dead, that God has exalted him to be our leader and Savior, and has done so in order that we may receive God’s gift of repentance and forgiveness that is ours in the present and living power of the Spirit.

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!


Commentary on Psalm 150

Kathryn M. Schifferdecker

The celebration continues! On this second Sunday of Easter, the sound of trumpets still echoes in our sanctuaries and is joined by the Hallelujah Chorus of Psalm 150.

“Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness!”

This last of the psalms is a doxology of doxologies. The editors of the Psalter organized the collection into five “books,” each of which ends with a summons to praise (see Psalm 41:13; 72:18-19; 89:52; 106:48). The last of these summons is Psalm 150 itself, but this doxology serves double duty; it ends not only the fifth “book” (Psalm 107-150) of the Psalter, but also the Psalter as a whole.

This closing doxology has begun already in Psalm 146, with its opening summons to “Praise the LORD!” Likewise, each of the last five psalms in the Psalter begins and ends with this phrase, “Praise the LORD” (in Hebrew, hallelujah!) But in the last of the psalms, the word hallelujah is used repeatedly; it becomes an insistent drumbeat that rises steadily to a crescendo of praise. The word hallel (“to praise”) is used over and over again in Psalm 150, thirteen times in just six verses!

To be precise, hallelu is the plural imperative of the verb hallel (“to praise”). And jah (or yah) is shorthand for the personal name of God: Yahweh. So, to put it in a Southern idiom, hallelujah means “Y’all praise Yahweh!” It is a summons not primarily to the individual reader or hearer, but to a whole community. Indeed, it is a summons to “everything that has breath” (150:6): Praise Yahweh!

It is fitting that this psalm, which is filled to overflowing with the sound of praise, should end the book of Psalms. The Hebrew title for the book, after all, is Tehillim, “Praises.” It may seem at first an odd choice of names for a book that contains so much sorrow and lament. Indeed, the first “book” of the Psalter (Psalm 1-41) is composed mostly of laments:  “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1) “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). Lament is not the whole story, however. Praise erupts in the middle of the laments (see the end of Psalm 22) and, gradually, through the course of the whole book of Psalms, the laments give way to praise until finally, at the end, “hallelujah” is all that remains.

Eugene Peterson writes of this movement of the Psalter and particularly of the last five psalms:

       This is not a ‘word of praise’ slapped onto whatever
       mess we are in at the moment. This crafted
       conclusion of the Psalms tells us that our prayers
       are going to end in praise, but that it is also
       going to take awhile. Don’t rush it. It may take
       years, decades even, before certain prayers arrive
       at the hallelujahs….Not every prayer is capped off
       with praise. In fact most prayers, if the Psalter
       is a true guide, are not. But prayer, a praying
       life, finally becomes praise. Prayer is always
       reaching towards praise and will finally arrive
       there. If we persist in prayer, laugh and cry,
       doubt and believe, struggle and dance and then
       struggle again, we will surely end up at Psalm 150,
       on our feet, applauding, “Encore! Encore!”1 

Prayer (including lament) leads to praise. It is the movement of the Christian life. It is also the movement of the high holy days we have just observed, from the laments of Good Friday (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!”) to the joyful hallelujahs of Easter morning. But note: the praise does not negate or ignore the lament. If anything, the praise is made more real, more robust, by passing through the lament. Easter hallelujahs are sung most profoundly by those who have known Good Friday.

Psalm 150, with its expansive summons to praise, ends a biblical book that plumbs the depths of human sorrow. The Psalter is matched in the Bible only by Job and Lamentations in its exploration of loss and grief. But this book of honest and gut-wrenching prayers ends with praise, and calls us (and indeed, “everything that has breath”) to join in. And what praise it is! Trumpets and harps! Tambourines and cymbals! Dancing feet and lifted voice! All are employed in praise of the God who created heaven and earth, the God who saved Israel through his “mighty deeds” (verse 2), the God who, as we proclaim in this Easter season, defeated sin and death once and for all in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

And so we join in the hallelujahs. “We are an Easter people, and ‘Alleluia’ is our song!”2  “Alleluia” not as an escape from the realities of a life often touched with tears and grief. “Alleluia” not as a refusal to face the truth. “Alleluia” not as a denial of lament. (The Psalter bears ample witness to the power of lament). No. The “alleluias/hallelujahs” of Psalm 150 are the response of ones who know full well the power of death, but who know even more fully still the power of the God who brings us and all creation out of death into life.

We are an Easter people, and ‘Hallelujah’ is our song! With the psalmist, with doubting Thomas, with John of Patmos, and with all who have known pain and sorrow, we rejoice in the triumph of the God of life and we join in the chorus: “Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary…Praise him with trumpet sound…Praise him with clanging cymbals…Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Hallelujah!”

1Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (Harper & Row, 1989), 127.
2Sometimes attributed to St. Augustine, this sentence was spoken by Pope John Paul II in a speech in Harlem, October, 1979. The full speech can be read at http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/1979/october/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_19791002_usa-neri-america_en.html

Second Reading

Commentary on Revelation 1:4-8

Walter F. Taylor, Jr.

On “Doubting Thomas” Sunday, it is hard to entertain the possibility of preaching on another text. Revelation 1:4-8, however, gives us three good options.

1.  The Second through the Seventh Sundays of Easter (Year C) provide the preacher with the longest string of consecutive lessons from Revelation anywhere in the Revised Common Lectionary. Okay, there is no other string of lessons from Revelation, but this Easter cycle gives us an opportunity to lift up the wonderful witness of John the Seer. Our pericope includes the address to the recipients as well as a ringing statement of the two themes of the entire book.

John writes “to the seven churches that are in Asia.” Asia refers to the Roman province of that name; today it is western Turkey. Seven, of course, is the number of completion. To write to seven churches is to write to all churches. John’s greeting begins in a way similar to Paul’s letter openings: “Grace to you and peace,” and it continues with a three-point formula.

•First, the greeting is from “him who is and who was and who is to come,” a statement that echoes Exodus 3:13-14. Thus, the same God who was is also now. God has not retired! This God will continue to come.

•Second, the greeting is “from the seven spirits who are before his throne” (also in 3:1, 4:5, 5:6).

•Third, the greeting is from “Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” Jesus Christ is further identified in three ways.

        o      “Faithful witness”: the Greek word for
               witness is martys, from which
               our word martyr comes. Actually,
               in Greek, the words read, “Jesus Christ,
               the witness, the faithful one, the
               firstborn …” Jesus is above all the
               witness, the martyr, the one who has
               given his witness all the way to death.
               In that way, he has indeed been the
               faithful one.

        o      But Jesus has also been resurrected, and so
               he is the firstborn of or from the dead.
               For Christians who live with the threat of
               arrest and possible death, the fact that
               Jesus was the martyr above all martyrs,
               the one who was faithful, and the one who
               is the first one resurrected (thus there
               will be more) must have been extremely
               important and encouraging. Christians were
               following not just anyone; they were
               following this Jesus.

        o      And Jesus is now “the ruler of the kings
               of the earth,” which means that he is
               ultimately the one who rules over those
               who claim to be this earth’s rulers,
               especially the emperors of Rome (see
               verses 7-8).

The rest of verse 5 and all of verse 6 are a doxology (ascribing glory, the Greek do,xa) to Christ.

Jesus is glorified because:

•he loves us (the way Revelation is often read the love of God in Christ can easily be lost);

•he freed or released us from our sins by his blood (in Revelation Jesus is always the slaughtered Lamb who died for us);

•he made us to be a kingdom and priests (that is, he made believers a kingdom, each member of which is a priest to God; these are ancient privileges of Israel; see Exodus 19:6).

Verse 7 provides the first overarching theme of the book: Jesus will return. The first theme is one we automatically associate with Revelation, and John concludes it with a bilingual double-whammy: “So it is to be” (the Greek word yes), and “Amen” (the Hebrew for let it be so).

Verse 8 gives us the second overarching theme: God is God. Perhaps that is not so obvious a theme, but the constant battle in Revelation is between the true God, the God of Israel, the God of Jesus, and the false gods of this world epitomized in the emperor of Rome. In contrast to the false gods, the Lord, the one again “who is and who was and who is to come,” is the Alpha and the Omega. Alpha, of course, was the first letter of the Greek alphabet; Omega was the last letter. In a sense, God is before the beginning and after the end. Moreover, this God is the Almighty, the All-Powerful One. It is a title claimed by the emperor–as are Lord and God. “Here,” writes John, “is God. Beside him there is no other.” And so preachers may well want to ask, “Who are the gods attracting people today? And what does the true God say to us about them?”

2.  The Revelation lesson gives us an opening to talk about Christology in ways we may not have had on Easter. All or any one of the many titles of verse 5 could be explored. Taken together they outline a full Christology that includes life, death, resurrection, and present lordship. The Christological emphasis continues with the love of Christ and his freeing action by means of his death (verses 5b-6), and in verse 7 we look forward to the coming of Jesus as the final judge.

3.  Finally, Revelation and the Acts passage for this day work well together. Peter and the apostles had been ordered to stop teaching in the name of Jesus, but they have refused. When hauled before the high priest, they answer, “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29). Once again, the question is–who is God? Who is the God who is to be worshipped and obeyed? But–alas?–that returns us to the Doubting Thomas story, where Thomas calls Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” That exclamation raises, in turn, the question: Who is the Lord of this world? And that returns us to the Revelation text.

So we avoided Thomas in two out of three cases! A .667 batting average is not too bad at the beginning of the baseball season, but all joking aside, the three lessons together raise each person’s most fundamental question: Who is God?